Search engines by their very nature are always innovating in their quest to deliver that optimum search experience to each and every user who types in a query. The pace of search innovation can be frustrating for search marketers, as it keeps ‘shifting the goalposts’. Just when you think you’ve got this search thing ‘sussed’ along come the leading search engines with a development that changes things again.
The search engines don’t care about upsetting your finely honed SEO campaign. Search engines are striving to deliver the most relevant, valuable content to their users, improving their user experience and retaining or increasing their market share.
The leading search engine constantly ‘tweak’ their ranking algorithms, refining the way they assess relevance and authority based on content, links and other factors. This constantly tinkering with the nuts and bolts of how search engines assess relevance has always been a challenge for search marketers, but more recent developments, aimed at tailored search results to each individual user, have caused quite a stir in SEO circles.
Personalisation: search results tailored to individual users
Back in 2007 Google started to roll out personalisation of search results for users who were signed in with a Google account. What it meant was that Google would start taking the search history of users into account when assessing the relevance of search results.
Lets say, for example, that you’ve searched for ‘Mustang’ while signed in to your Google account, and you had recently been searching and clicking on results for car-related stuff. The search engine might assume you want information relating to the Ford Mustang car rather than, say, the Wikipedia page for mustang horse.
Then, in late 2009, Google really shook things up by extending similar search personalisation to all users, whether they had a Google account or not (users could not opt out, by default the feature was turned on). The move sent the SEO world into turmoil, and instantly rendered as pretty much meaningless the coveted SEO goal of ‘being number one in Google’ for any given keyword phrase. Now, my number one search result could be different to your number one search result, which could be different to everybody else’s number one search result.
Ultimately, search personalisation served to move the focus of SEO away from a race to the once coveted positions in the top of the SERPs, and shifted it back to where it really should have been all along: delivering great content that adds real value for users, and making sure that search engines are aware of that, and monitoring and measuring success based not on your position in SERPs, but on the actual number of targeted visitors referred to your website by the search engines. That is what sustainable SEO is really all about: harnessing the power of search engines to help you deliver outstanding, relevant content to your target market.
Search gets social – integrating updates from online connections into search results
In late 2009 Microsoft made search more social announcing deals with Twitter and Facebook to include real time status updates in its Bing search results. Google followed by announcing a similar deal with Twitter for its own real-time search, and by introducing a feature called ‘Social Search’ intro its main web-search offering.
When a web user is signed in to their Google account and conducts a web search, Google now incorporated publicly available content created or recommended by a user’s online friends and connections across Google’s range of products and other publicly available web services.
That means that along with regular web results, users who are signed in will see relevant content that their online ‘friends’ have shared publicly on Youtube, Picasa, Flickr, Twitter, on their blog, in their Google Reader and in lots of other places online.
The rationale, of course, is that old search engine mantra of relevance. The web is becoming increasingly social, and people are more willing than ever to share information, opinions and experience. We also trust the recommendations of people we ‘know’ online and, by incorporating content from our extended online network into search results, search engines are betting we will find those results more relevant, useful and personal.
What does social integration intro search mean for marketers? On the surface, having recommendations from a search user’s online social connections appear in the standard web SERPs may seem like bad news from a search marketer’s perspective. It means that there is yet more content competing for those limited spaces on the first page of the SERPs for any given search term. Then again, if you are creating compelling, useful and relevant content for your target audience the stuff that is being recommended on those social search results could easily be yours.
Social search emphasises the need to get out and engage with your customers in the social arena, to create useful, compelling content that is worth sharing, and to build enduring relationships with the people you want to do business with. The integration of social element into search results is growing in importance, and while there are privacy concerns and other stumbling blocks that need to be overcome, ultimately the search engines’ obsessive quest for relevance is turning search into a very personal experience.
The Knowledge Graph and conversational search
The Knowledge Graph was officially launched in May 2012c and has significantly changed the SERPs and the way that users process and digest information. It displays information in entries rather than in a query level. Google understands that when you search for ‘Brad Pitt’, for example, you could be looking for information about his past or upcoming films, his biography or his date of birth, so it shows you all this information based on what it determined is your intent. If you follow this search with the query ‘who is gis wife?’ Google has already decided you are talking about Brad and will show you results for Angelina. For local searches, for example searching on a town or city, we now see a carousel at the top of the SERPs, inviting to click and explore ‘things to do in the city’.
What does this mean to business? We’re back to content again because of the Knowledge Graph, Google is giving users the option to stay with the SERPs for longer, as they scan information based on their search.
Ryan, D., 2016. Understanding digital marketing: marketing strategies for engaging the digital generation. Kogan Page Publishers.